Modernizing Korea


A generation after its own ports were forced open for trade, Japan caused three ports to be opened in Korea in 1876. Little by little the modern methods of trade and government came into Korea. Christian missionaries built schools, libraries and medical clinics. Despite jolts of persecution many ordinary Koreans became Christians. In 1894 the system of social classes was outlawed and Korea was at the center of conflict between China and Japan; as they now say, a shrimp caught between the whales of East Asia, including Russia’s activity on their Far East coast up north. In 1895 Queen Min was assassinated by Japanese and other guards. And two years later the leaders proclaimed their government to be the Empire of Korea.

Factories sprang up but most people still lived by farming and fishing. Until 1945 nearly all industry was owned and controlled by investors from Japan. Gradually the farm land was bought up by Japanese, too. For a short time in 1905 some agricultural laborers were able to emigrate to Hawai’i. Many more escaped the poverty that came along with Korea’s opening up to the outside world by crossing over the border with Russia. By 1937 when hostilities were coming, the Russians forcibly moved these 200,000 immigrants to Kazakhstan in the interior, where they live today. In spite of the rapid injection of money and expertise by Japanese and the aid given by missionaries to propel Korean life rapidly down the road to modernization, after a couple generations the destructive forces after World War I and continuing to World War II left most Koreans in a terrible state.

The division of the peninsula and enormous suffering from 1950 to 1953 practically erased much of the infrastructure developed during the colonial days. Today South Korea is 12th largest in economic production and boasts the highest number of advanced graduate degrees per capita. The people there are looking forward to a unified society once again.



Colonial Korea

Along with the Western Imperial powers, Japan took colonies. In 1895 Taiwan was the first one. But for size, short distance to Japan, and its many historical links, Korea was the most important colony. It was annexed by treaty agreement in 1910 to deter the other colonial powers of Europe.

At its colonial peak only about 150,000 Japanese actually settled in Korea. There were many more on Sakhalin Island in the far north or on the Micronesian Islands that Japan got after the first WW from the League of Nations. All of these people supported Japan. For example, from Korea and Taiwan half the rice was extracted.

About 2 1/2 thousand Koreans lived in Japan when the colony began 100 years ago. But by the end of WWII 35 years later, almost 1,000x as many Koreans were living on the Japanese islands. In the first stage of colonization Korea was developed for trade, industry and efficient government. A rail line linked Pusan to Seoul, which was the first city in the East Asia to have electricity, telephone, water, and trolley service. Some Koreans rose in the ranks of university, medical, military or other government service. After the March 1st Independence Movement in 1919 the Japanese permitted Korean news media to operate and switched from military to civilian police. But in 1919 in Shanghai a Korean provisional government in exile began. When war started in the late 1930s many people fell into poverty or suffered forced labor. Speaking Korean was punished, and in 1939 Koreans were forced to take Japanese names. From 1943 more than 5 million men were drafted into the Japanese Imperial military. It was only with Japan’s surrender in August 1945 that the surviving conscripts and forced laborers could go back home. Despite some useful construction, the colonial days brought more bad than good to most Koreans.


Women in Korea

During the past 150 years the women and men in Korea have experienced many changes in the shape and direction of their lives. These pictures copied from the Library of Congress collections focus especially on changes in women's lives and illustrate some of the main aspects of change.

From the late 1300s and continuing for the next 600 years Confucianism touched people’s lives in many ways. During this Choson period, social interaction was ruled by people’s obligations to each other in the five primary relationships between man and wife, between parent and child, between older brother and younger, between friend and friend, and between ruler and his subjects. For women this meant segregated lives at home, at work and out in public. Unlike Japan, though, women of Korea could inherit and hold property. Photos often show women in public at market or washing the standard white clothing that most people wore. High-ranking women were carried in sedan chairs, accompanied by servants. Besides this all-around ethical structure between individuals, a person‘s life was also shaped by their level of social status: scholar-civil servant or farmer. The largest category were slaves, including tenant farmers, craftsman, and merchants.

In the 1870s the outside world began entering this so-named Hermit Kingdom. Christian missionaries built health and school facilities. Foreign experts worked to build railroads and port facilities. Meanwhile the Japanese also were busy with their own modernization, but little by little they became more involved in Korea. Finally in 1910 they declared the peninsula to be a colony of Japan. Some of the changes in women’s status in Japan was carried over to Korea, too. There was wage labor and factory work, schools for girls, and more and more government employment.

As a result of the constant pace of change throughout the Korean peninsula, there are wide generation gaps, especially among South Koreans. Compared to the past, families have few children with both parents working outside the home. As in the past, women do not take their husband’s surname at marriage. And while it is less prominent than before, Confucian customs may still be stronger than anywhere else in the world.